Jon Gruden's Fate with Raiders Should Lie with Vegas' Year 2 WRsJuly 10, 2021
Two seemingly unrelated comments head coach Jon Gruden made nearly a year apart continue to hang over the Las Vegas Raiders organization.
The first involves his reported 10-year, $100 million contract. It might not be so clear-cut. Gruden said he must perform, or he'll walk.
"If I can't get it done, I'm not going to take their money," the coach told USA Today's Jarrett Bell nearly three years ago.
The second deals with how Gruden envisioned his roster, which he discussed after the ill-fated Antonio Brown trade prior to the 2019 season.
"We don't want to have a good receiving corps. I want to have the best receiving corps in football, and I think in order to have the best you have to have the best, " Gruden told reporters.
The two statements are now intertwined as the Raiders prepare for the '21 campaign. Las Vegas has struggled under Gruden's supervision. The organization, meanwhile, has made significant investments at wide receiver only to see the position fall well short of expectations.
Massive improvement from the wide receiver corps this fall should accompany a successful regular-season performance. If not, Gruden should live up to his word and walk away from the franchise.
The coach may not be on the hot seat since owner Mark Davis had been enamored with the possibility of him leading the Raiders for years. Then again, Gruden understands it's a year-by-year business.
"Who guarantees I'm going to live 10 years?" he told Bell. "So I don't think about that. You start thinking about a 10-year contract—people don't know how it's structured, and it doesn't matter. ... I've got more important things to worry about than eight years of my contract."
Well, seven years remain, and he might not make it beyond the fourth based on what everyone has seen to date.
The Raiders are 19-29 through the first three seasons. The team incrementally progressed but not beyond the point of mediocrity. At 8-8 last season, an obvious gap existed between the Kansas City Chiefs and the AFC West's second-place finisher. The ironic part is the Raiders' high-water mark came in a Week 5 victory over those Chiefs.
After their Week 6 bye, the Raiders finished 5-6, including five losses in their final seven games.
Las Vegas won't be able to elevate its status, particularly in its division, without some of its top talent realizing its potential. Last year's draft investments—including Henry Ruggs III, the first wide receiver off the board at No. 12, and Bryan Edwards—should allow the Raiders offense to become more explosive. There's also veteran John Brown, who joined in free agency this offseason.
Consider for a moment: The Raiders finished seventh in passing offense last season and ranked top-five in 20-plus- and 40-plus-yard chunk plays. However, the unit leaned heavily on tight end Darren Waller, who finished 10th overall with 1,196 receiving yards and 16 total big plays. Both led the Raiders last season.
Nelson Agholor led the team's wide receivers with 896 receiving yards and 15 big plays. The veteran target signed a free-agent deal with the New England Patriots this offseason.
Thus, Hunter Renfrow will return as the team's leading wide receiver after posting 656 yards in his sophomore season.
Ruggs and Edwards are the keys to success, but they need to be far more effective in Year 2 for the Raiders to keep pace with the Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers and even the Denver Broncos.
The Chiefs are motivated after their embarrassing loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. Plus, they've rebuilt their offensive line to better protect quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The Chargers did the same for reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert. The Broncos will be healthier, with outside linebacker Von Miller and wide receiver Courtland Sutton returning to the field.
Las Vegas needs a shot in the arm to propel itself beyond middling with Gruden's reputation on the line.
Ruggs can change the game with his 4.27-second 40-yard dash speed. Defenses must account for him at all times, and the Raiders knew it when they drafted him.
"He was the only person I wanted in this draft," Davis stated.
He added: "You don't just come in and be Cliff Branch. You've got to earn that tag. But he does have that ability to change the game."
In 13 contests, Ruggs posted 452 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Yes, some receivers take time to adjust and become legitimate threats. But the Raiders had to be a little jealous of how the Dallas Cowboys' CeeDee Lamb, Minnesota Vikings' Justin Jefferson and even the Cincinnati Bengals' Tee Higgins performed after being selected later in the draft.
Gruden said Ruggs looked "much better" this offseason and wants him to be more than a decoy this fall, according to The Athletic's Vic Tafur.
"We knew exactly what he was, and that's who he is," general manager Mike Mayock told reporters this spring. "We had no surprises last year on Ruggs. Now, he needs to take it to Level 2 now, the next level up—stronger, better route-runner, finish, get both feet down. All those things. And we think he will."
Speed can be a wonderful asset when properly harnessed, but Ruggs' maturation regarding the nuances of the position must improve. If they do, his status will grow from a talented speedster into a true playmaker.
A difference can definitely be seen so far.
"Man, he's been impressive," quarterback Derek Carr said of Ruggs. "The way he's running routes. He's being violent in his cuts. I think something clicked in his head."
Another boost could come from Edwards, who fell into the third round after he suffered a broken foot during predraft preparation. Technically, Edwards entered the '20 campaign as a starter because Tyrell Williams wasn't healthy. The rookie didn't do much with the opportunity and was quickly replaced by Agholor, and a nagging ankle injury limited his capabilities.
Edwards does bring a physical presence to the wide receiver room. At 6'3" and 212 pounds, last year's 81st overall pick is a true X-receiver who's capable of working outside of the numbers and overwhelming defensive backs.
Once again, Gruden potentially set himself up for failure with his words.
"He's going to be a great one," the coach said of Edwards. "He's going to be a heck of a player. He's got a lot of the intangibles off the field that we're looking for."
Maybe Edwards will become a great one. He has the natural ability to do so. At the same time, he came off a rough rookie campaign and must grow into a much bigger role after only 11 receptions in 12 appearances.
Edwards knows he has work to do too.
"It definitely was a process, and it obviously was frustrating," Edwards said. "Anytime I'm not getting the results I want to get, I'm frustrated and I'm trying fix it. But Rome wasn't built in one day. All good things take time, and I'm just trusting the process."
The Raiders' top wide receiver investments are works in progress. In order for the rest of the offense to take off, Ruggs and Edwards must develop rapidly after disappointing rookie performances. If they do, the Raiders should be counted among the AFC's playoff contenders. If they do not, a lack of progress reflects directly on Gruden and his staff since other teams and their coaches had their first-year players prepared despite mitigating factors caused by a pandemic.
By Year 4 under Gruden, the Raiders organization should know what it has regarding the roster. Potential breakout seasons from last year's wide receiver selections stand between advancement or time for a restart.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.